By Dr. Altay Atlı

There have been significant developments in recent days with regard to Turkey’s pursuit of civilian nuclear power. On April 1, its parliament ratified a nuclear cooperation agreement with Japan for the construction of Turkey’s second planned nuclear plant in the Black Sea province of Sinop, and the bill was approved by President Erdoğan a few days later. On April 14, ground was broken for the construction of the first planned plant, which will be financed, built and operated by the Russian atomic agency Rosatom in Akkuyu at the Mediterranean coast. Turkey’s nuclear program is apparently moving from the planning stage towards actual implementation.

The rationale behind Turkey’s nuclear ambitions is economic in character. Turkey depends on imported energy to fuel its economic growth, as more than 90% of the oil, coal and gas consumed by Turkey needs to be bought from abroad. This situation does not only render Turkey vulnerable to global price fluctuations, but also creates a geopolitical bottleneck as energy security concerns remain a key determinant shaping Turkey’s relations with the countries in its region. Moreover, this dependence aggravates the country’s current account deficit, which stood at $45.9 billion as of the end of 2014. During the same year Turkey’s energy imports amounted to $54.9 billion, a figure which clearly shows the source of the Turkish deficit. Turkey’s desire to obtain nuclear power capabilities makes sense as the country is seeking to reduce its dependence on imports and narrow down its current deficit.

Ankara’s nuclear plant deal with Russia can be seen as a continuation of long-running cooperation in the field of energy between the two countries. On the other hand, the deal with Japan – and the fact that China is the most likely candidate to build the third plant – provide strong signals about Turkey’s growing efforts to broaden its global relationships towards Asia. After decades of experimental attempts of building links with the economic powerhouses of East Asia – mostly on an ad hoc basis and without a structured and systematic policy agenda – Ankara now realizes that the best way for constructing lasting relations is through long-term economic partnerships of strategic nature built on the basis of mutual benefits. At a time when Turkey is reviving efforts to revitalize relations with Europe, Turkey’s reach towards Japan and China does not amount to a shift of axis in Turkey’s foreign policy, but rather an effort to diversify its relations in a pragmatic manner. The nuclear plant deals offer a clear illustration in this respect.

The deal with Japan is about a $22 billion-plant to be built by a consortium of Mitsubishi and Itochu corporations of Japan and GDF Suez from France. A closer look at the text of the agreement between Turkey and Japan shows that the deal implies more than simply the construction and operation of the power plant. It lays the framework for a long term strategic partnership between the two countries, as it: 1. provides a roadmap for technology transfer between Japan and Turkey; 2. implies the establishment of a Nuclear Technology and Education Center in Turkey and a Turkish-Japanese University of Technology; 3. includes a “local supply plan” which aims to “generate value added sectors, contribute to the improvement of social welfare in Turkey” and will lead to the “establishment of competitive advantage in local industries”; 4. includes a “human resources improvement plan” that will train “qualified Turkish citizens”. In other words, Turkey and Japan are establishing a platform for long-term strategic cooperation, which will last far beyond the completion of the plant in Sinop. In the meantime, participation of the French company in the project is deemed by Turkish bureaucrats as being of of vital importance for Turkey’s efforts of integration with Europe.

Turkey’s negotiations with the Chinese State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation (SNPTC) for the third nuclear plant reveal a similar pattern. Although the deal is yet to be finalized, an agreement of exclusivity has already been signed last November, and the plant, of which the location is yet to be determined, does not only aim at improving Turkey’s energy security, but it is also laying another brick for the already growing strategic partnership between Turkey and China. It is important to note that in this project, SNPTC is partnering with Westinghouse, a U.S.-based nuclear power company with majority ownership by Toshiba from Japan. As it has been the case with the second plant where Japanese and French companies are involved, Turkey is making the effort to build a long-term partnership with an Asian power by engaging other stakeholders as well, including the French and the Americans. So far as their meaning for the nation’s foreign policy is concerned, these tripartite deals signal not a shift of axis but rather pragmatism and economic rationality.

Turkey has always been interested in Asia; but it has only recently begun to transform foreign policy rhetoric into a concrete vision through strategic economic partnerships such as the nuclear plant deals.

Dr. Altay Atlı is a research fellow at the Center of Global Studies at Shanghai University, and a non-resident scholar at the Asian Studies Center of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul.

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